BOSTON – It’s easy to forget that it was just three years ago Paul George was part of a strong Indiana Pacers nucleus that was in the Eastern Conference finals and took the LeBron James-led Miami Heat to seven games.
Things have changed dramatically for the 6-foot-9 George who is leading a Pacers team that’s fighting just to be in the playoffs, a team that just a month ago he wasn’t sure he would even be a part of due to trade rumors that included him potentially being traded to Boston.
"It's been a different year for Paul," said Pacers head coach Nate McMillan. "The last few years he played with a group of guys that are no longer with him. Having to establish and lead this new group, it's the first time for him. As well as being concerned about his play. It's growth for him. That doesn't happen overnight. Sometimes that takes a little time."
George, playing in Boston for the first time tonight since the NBA trade deadline passed, acknowledged there was a sense of relief when Feb. 23 came and went and he remained a Pacer.
“It was great from the sense of the outside stuff,” George said. “Not for myself. Again, where I was, is where I was gonna be at. I was gonna make the most out of it. It was just good to put that to rest. To have to keep answering those questions. Or, to keep avoiding those questions, to where I could just focus on what's at hand. And that's trying to at least solidify the six spot, if not move up going down the stretch. Man, we're close to the seventh, we're close to the eighth seed. At this point, it's how can we get a little distance going into the playoffs.”
The Celtics (44-26) have a similar approach to tonight’s game. They come in currently second in the East to Cleveland by two games, and lead Washington by 2.5. The lead over the Wizards will likely increase with most of Washington’s remaining games on the road with a large chunk as part of their final long road trip that begins in Cleveland and then takes them out West where they’ll face the Los Angeles Clippers, the Utah Jazz and cap it off with a road battle at Golden State.
As for George, the trade rumors – a first for him since being a Pacer – weren’t the worst part about this season.
Adapting to a series of new roles, expectations and a relatively new group of teammates, has been difficult for George.
“It's been very different. It's probably been one of the toughest seasons for me,” George said. “Just naturally being a leader. Being the last Pacer with the group that I came in with. And just being in that Eastern Conference finals roster, I'm the last guy on that roster. So, it's been different. I've grown into a different role. Becoming a different leader. And you know, you always re-live them glory days. And when they're gone, it's the last little bit that you remember. So I'm trying to bring that to this team and that edge. But it's taken some time and there's a toll.”
George remains one of the NBA’s best players, evident by the coaches selecting the 26-year-old to his fourth All-Star team last month.
Being an elite player while patiently waiting for the Pacers to improve as a group, has not been easy.
“That's really what's been the toughest part for me,” George said. “Usually I had two jobs; be the best defender and the best scorer. Now it's be the leader. Be the toughness guy. Be the enforcer. It's just a lot of roles that I had to pick up this season and that's what's been the toll. That's what's been the roughest part of it, is how do you put energy in every bit of places. I've grown with it. I've gotten better throughout the season, as the season's gone on. Different matchups gone on. How to approach different teams. But it's been a task. It's been a test. It's been a test to learn.”
Part of that growth individually and as a team involves nights like this when the Pacers face a team like Boston which they could potentially see next month in the first round of the playoffs.
“We have to approach tonight like it's gonna be a playoff battle,” George said. “Celtics (are) not gonna be a team that's gonna let up. They're fighting for positioning as well, I think they're second right now (in the East) and Washington's on their heels. So, they're fighting for playoff positioning and seeding as much as we are. So it's gonna be an intense game.”